MI5 missed early chance to expose Soviet agent Kim Philby, files reveal

British intelligence viewed Flora Solomon as ‘inconsequential’ in 1951 but her evidence later ‘clinched’ case against Philby

Kim Philby could have been unmasked as a Soviet double agent more than a decade before his eventual defection had MI5 not missed an opportunity to question his close friend Flora Solomon, according to newly released intelligence files.

Solomon, born in Russia to a wealthy family, was a former lover of Alexander Kerensky, the Russian leader deposed by Lenin. She told MI5 in 1962 that Philby had tried to recruit her as a Soviet spy in 1937-38.

Philby, a British intelligence officer, was suspected to be the “third man” who tipped off Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, two of the “Cambridge five”, in 1951 when they fled to Moscow. He was exonerated in 1955, and subsequently worked in Beirut as a journalist for the Observer.

But in 1962, Solomon, then the welfare superintendent at Marks & Spencer and the widow of an English army officer, approached MI5 through the former MI5 officer Victor Rothschild. She said she had known Philby since he was a child, and that he had an infatuation with her.

She said that, after returning from covering the Spanish civil war, Philby had met her for lunch in a “highly agitated state” and said: “Don’t you see ... I am 100% on the Soviet side, and I am helping them ... I am carrying [out] a terrifically important and difficult assignment, and I am in danger.”

He then tried to enlist her, she said, but she refused, telling him: “I am not of that type. It doesn’t interest me,” according to files released by the National Archives on Tuesday.

Her information “clinched” the case against Philby, who had already been named by a Soviet defector to the US, according to the Spycatcher author Peter Wright, then an MI5 agent working on the case. Philby would defect shortly afterwards, in January 1963.

When the MI5 agent who interviewed her asked her why she had not come forward in 1951, Solomon replied: “Look, if you had come to me, if I had been directly approached … I certainly would have come out.”

According to a 1971 report on the case by Stella Rimington, the security services had been alerted to Solomon in 1951-52 as a result of telephone tapping at Philby’s home. But Solomon was judged at the time to be “innocuous and fairly inconsequential”.

Solomon, an ardent Zionist, told MI5 she was at one time sympathetic to the Russian cause but that changed with the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact. She had come forward in 1962 because she wanted to unburden her conscience, and because she wanted to somehow prevent Philby writing articles that were, she said, violently anti-Israel.

In her report, Rimington, who would go on to become the first female director general of MI5, questioned Solomon’s motives for not coming forward sooner. She might have – as Solomon’s sister claimed – had an emotional tie to Philby, a younger man who had “swept her off her feet at the end of her affair with Kerensky”.

She might also been under the control of the Russian intelligence service at the time, though Rimington thought if that was the case Solomon would have a more convincing reason for not coming forward other than her “feeble excuse”.

It could not be discounted, however, that the Russians wanted Philby to defect to escape the clutches of western intelligence but he was refusing to do so, and that Solomon’s story was meant to exert more pressure so “they could more easily persuade him to defect”.

It was hard to understand “why having kept this story to herself for so long, she came forward with it at the time which appears to be so consonant with Russian interest”, said Rimington, acknowledging that because of Solomon’s declining mental state in old age they would probably never know.


Caroline Davies

The GuardianTramp

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